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Cyclists say chilling report on hit-and-run crashes points up need to redesign streets for safety

Bicyclists  in traffic on Constitution Avenue in Northwest Washington. (Gerald Martineau for The Washington Post)
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Bicyclists and pedestrian advocates say a new report on the steady increase in fatal hit-and-run crashes offers yet another reason to move faster on redesigning streets and highways in a rapidly urbanizing world.

The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety said in a report this week fatal hit-and-run crashes have reached the highest point on record in 2016, having increased by more than 7 percent every year since 2009. Nearly 65 percent of the victims are bicyclists and pedestrians.

The increase generally tracks an overall increase in traffic deaths in recent years many safety experts attribute to a stronger economy and more people on the road. Others say that, in addition to a growing number of bicycle commuters, fatal crash rates for bicyclists and pedestrians could be rising because more people are distracted drivers, thanks to the ubiquity of smartphones. Some safety advocates suggest drivers can become so absorbed in their phones they might not even be aware they have hit someone or driven a bicyclist off the road.

“It’s horrible to hear,” said Ken McLeod, policy director for the League of American Bicyclists who pedals to work in D.C. from his home in Arlington. “We hear it from our members all the time that the behavior is getting worse, and what’s worse than hit and run?”

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In regard to crashes of all types, the National Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) says 5,376 pedestrians were killed in 2015, the latest year for which there are data. That same year there were also 818 deaths involving crashes between bicycles and cars, an increase of 12 percent from the previous year.

Meanwhile, an average of 682,000 hit-and-run crashes have been recorded every year since 2006, AAA says. In 2016, there were 2,049 deaths from such crashes, which is the highest number on record. In the Washington metro area alone, 228 people died from 2013 to 2016 in crashes where the driver left the scene.

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McLeod said the higher overall rate for fatal crashes could be a result of more bicyclists out there but there is no acceptable explanation for hit-and-run crashes.

“That affects the crash rate. It shouldn’t affect the hit and run,” he said.

McLeod said the report points up the need to move more quickly to overhaul streets and roadways with a priority on pedestrian and bicyclist safety instead of the speed of motor vehicles. In the meantime, he called for better policing on the road and more traffic cameras that would allow law enforcement to identify people who flee a crash. He speculated distracted driving might also play a part.

“People are possibly more distracted and may not realize that a crash was as serious as it was,” he said.

James Wilson, executive director for Biking Delaware, says his state offers evidence the overall fatality rate for crashes involving pedestrians and bicyclists has a lot to do with roadway engineering.

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Delaware in recent years earned a reputation as being one of the most dangerous states for pedestrians. Though the number of pedestrians overall is small there, the fatality rate is sky-high because the roads are so poorly designed for people on foot, Wilson said. He said he believes that is because years of development transformed his state from farmland into what is almost one big suburb crisscrossed by roads designed for vehicular commuters, not pedestrians.

“You may have never walked on roads like this,” he said. “These are environments not set up for pedestrians. There are no sidewalks. These are scary scary environments for pedestrians.”